Fighting for land - and for the Enlightenment?
The authors of Te Urewera were charged with exploring the background to the claims that Tuhoe have brought before the Waitangi Tribunal, and they have naturally given a good deal of time to the repeated invasions of Tuhoe territory by Crown forces between 1865 and 1872. Chris is critical of the Tribunal's historians because he doesn't think they share his view that the armed struggle between Tuhoe and Crown forces was a 'civil war' whose outcome helped determine New Zealand's future. Chris thinks that the 'civil war' in the Ureweras involved a clash of ideologies, as well as a clash of arms:
Tuhoe picked the wrong side in the war to decide what sort of country New Zealand would become: a modern, technologically sophisticated, socially progressive and politically democratic state.
So modern and democratic, in fact, that in order to bind up the wounds of the losers, its liberal elite is willing to traduce the historical record and besmirch the reputations of the courageous men and women – Maori and Pakeha – whose blood sacrifice [in the war against Tuhoe] made New Zealand possible.
How credible is Chris Trotter's view? Were colonial militia, Maori kupapa, and British officers fighting a war for the advancement of the Enlightenment and the establishment of liberal democracy in those misty Ureweras forests in the 1860s? Should Tuhoe have thrown down their arms and sworn allegiance to the Queen, and to the spirit of Voltaire?
To argue that Tuhoe should have made peace with the Crown, rather than fight it, is to argue that they should have accepted the confiscation of a huge chunk of their land in the aftermath of the killing of Carl Volkner in 1865. Volkner, a Church Missionary Society clergyman suspected of spying for his friend Governor George Grey, was slain outside his Opotiki church by a group of the local Whakatohea people led by a newly-arrived firebrand from Taranaki, Kereopa Te Rau. Tuhoe had nothing to do with Volkner's death, but the Crown, which was under pressure from land speculators and armed settlers, used the event as an excuse to confiscate a huge section of the iwi's best land. Tuhoe lost all of their holdings along the Bay of Plenty coast, and also suffered an invasion by Crown forces which claimed to be hunting Volkner's killers. In his article, Chris Trotter notes that Tuhoe hosted Te Kooti at the end of the 1860s, as the prophet and his guerrilla army fled Crown forces. Tuhoe's decision to host Te Kooti led to a series of new invasions by Crown forces. Ill-disciplined armies of kupapa Maori and colonial volunteers led by professional soldiers burnt kainga, shot civilians, and pulled up crops to create famine. Chris believes that these actions were prompted, and perhaps to some extent justified, by Tuhoe's irrational hostility to the Crown. The iwi ought to have recognised that the government in Wellington represented 'progressive' values, and submitted to it.
It is not surprising that Chris' article fails to mention the confiscation of much of Tuhoe's best land in the mid-1860s. Once this act of gross opportunism is taken into account, Tuhoe's hostility to the Crown, and their decision to align themselves with Te Kooti, are easily understood. It is hard to imagine an example from history of a people who have been happy to accept the expropriation of a vast tract of their best territory on manifestly unjust grounds. Do we find it strange that the Norwegians chose to fight a brave but hopeless war with Germany in 1940, after Hitler demanded control of most of their coastline? Would anybody expect Poles to have assented to the partitioning of their country by the Soviet Union and Germany in 1939? Does anyone fault Finland for refusing to hand half its territory over to Stalin, in the same year?
Perhaps, though, Tuhoe should have made an extraordinary concession, effectively destroying their traditional economic base and losing their access to the sea and to many of their sacred sites, because submission to the colonial government would guarantee modernisation and prosperity, in the 'technologically sophisticated' and 'socially progressive' New Zealand Chris celebrates?
We can test this proposition by looking at the history of Tuhoe Country in the twentieth century, after the government in Wellington finally gained firm control of the region. The evidence is that, far from showering Tuhoe with the fruits of modernity and the Enlightenment, successive governments worked hard to block Tuhoe attempts at economic development and education. Again and again, Tuhoe were stopped from developing their land. The sort of state help with roading which was extended enthusiastically to rural Pakeha communities was persistently witheld from Tuhoe, even after the tribe donated land for a road and offered to provide free labour to help with its construction. The settler state tried to destroy Maungapohatu, Tuhoe's spiritual capital, by raiding the place in 1916 and by systematically underfunding education and other services there for decades afterwards.
What is true for Tuhoe is true for most other iwi in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The economic successes of the Maori nations of the Waikato Kingdom and Parihaka were not replicated under colonial rule. Wellington stifled rather than encouraged economic development.
Chris Trotter claims that iwi which allied themselves with the Crown during the wars of the nineteenth century did well out of the deal, because they gained ready entry into 'socially progressive New Zealand', but the sad twentieth century history of Auckland's tangata whenua offers evidence against this proposition. Ngati Whatua supplied the land on which the city of Auckland was founded, and were reliably loyal to the Crown throughout the Land Wars, and yet by the middle of the twentieth century they were being forcibly removed from the one small piece of land they still owned in the city, and watching the village they had maintained there being burnt to the ground. Ngati Whatua only won back some of their land after they abandoned their loyalty to the New Zealand state and staged a series of militant protests, including the massive and long-running occupation at Bastion Point.
In the comments thread beneath his post, Chris Trotter argues that Maori had the opportunity to 'assimilate' in the nineteenth century, by leaving behind their old culture and their old lands and becoming citizens of the new 'technologically sophisticated, socially progressive' Pakeha-dominated New Zealand. Chris believes that assimilation would have represented a step forward for Maori, in the context of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. It is unlikely that many nineteenth and early twentieth century Maori would have wanted to commit 'cultural suicide' by becoming brown-skinned Pakeha. Chris may think that the assimilation of Maori would have been historically progressive, but Maori fought to defend the Waikato Kingdom and Tuhoe Country, and protested with such determination at Parihaka, precisely because they wanted to remain unassimilated.
Even if more Maori had wanted to assimilate in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, it is very unlikely that they would have been able to, because the same capitalist economy which Chris hails retrospectively as an engine of historical progress depended upon keeping them out of the modern world.
After the wars and confiscations of the middle decades of the nineteenth century, Maori found that they had been pushed off their best land into marginal areas like the King Country, the 'limestone country' around Port Waikato, and the upper Whanganui. They were able to make a subsistence living on the rough, inaccessible land that remained to them, but they were unable to revive the export-driven market gardening economies that had flourished in the Waikato Kingdom and in Parihaka.
Because many Maori still lived off the land, Pakeha farmers and other employers were able to pay Maori wages that fell below subsistence levels, and thus drive up their own profits and undermine the wages of Pakeha workers. The state could afford to pay miniscule benefits to unemployed Maori for the same reason. For Kiwi capitalism, there was little incentive to fully proletarianise Maori until the boom years that followed World War Two created a major labour shortage.
In the comments thread at Bowalley Road, a reader named Victor accuses Chris Trotter of taking a rose-tinted view of nineteenth century Pakeha state and of the capitalist class that state served:
Aren't you propounding another equally sweeping and a-historical myth? Was anyone actually fighting to make New Zealand "a modern, technologically sophisticated, socially progressive and politically democratic state"?...Did their notion of a modern state include Maori in possession of large tracts of land, acting as fully participating and equal members of the body politic (and not just on paper)?
I remain wary of replacing a romantic, nostalgic myth of the "Harp that once through Tara’s halls" variety with an equally romantic "history as the onward, upward march of enlightenment" variant, with every minor rivulet, no matter how murky or swamp-ridden, seen as feeding the great ocean of Human Progress.
Chris may wrap his interpretation of nineteenth century New Zealand history in the rhetoric of hardheaded historical realism, but the essence of his interpretation is, as Victor points out, remarkably romantic. And if one is going to be romantic about a past conflict, isn't it better to romanticise the underdog in that conflict?